“You wouldn’t think of a symphony partnering with a brewery, but in Asheville it makes sense,” says David Whitehill, executive director of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra. In fact, for the inaugural Asheville Amadeus Festival — which runs March 17-22 — the symphony teamed up not only with Highland Brewing Co. (which will release its commemorative Wolfgang 1756 Vienna-style lager on Saturday, March 14, at a pre-festival kickoff party), but also with local groups ranging from N.C. Stage Company and the Asheville Art Museum to the Blue Ridge Orchestra and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville.
“We wanted to help to build the capacity of the arts in Asheville by raising the visibility,” says Whitehill. The festival, in the planning stage for nearly two years, came together around the booking of Grammy Award-winning pianist Emanuel Ax. This is the first time an artist of Ax’s stature has performed side by side with the symphony, says Whitehill, so it made sense to build a number of programs around the pianist’s visit.
“We’re sort of showcasing what arts organizations do here in Asheville 365 days of the year,” Whitehill explains. Festival planners reached out to local groups asking, “What would you like to show that you do — or would you like to take this as an opportunity to incubate an idea?” Results include Mozart Yoga at the Asheville Art Museum, a Deconstructing Mozart luncheon at Isa’s Bistro and a performance of Mozart’s The Impresario by Asheville Lyric Opera at the YMI Cultural Center.
Whitehill estimates that roughly 80 percent of the festival’s offerings are free, and attendance at all related programs is expected to total about 20,000. The festival will stretch beyond its weeklong run, with ancillary offerings scattered throughout March such as an Austrian wine flight at Santé Wine Bar and a screening of the director’s cut of the film Amadeus at Metro Wines. Meanwhile, the Asheville Symphony Guild’s Mozart Music in the Schools program will visit every second-, third- and fourth-grade public school student in Buncombe County this year.
That’s ambitious, but so is the production of Amadeus (Wednesday, March 11-Sunday, March 22), a joint effort by N.C. Stage and Asheville Community Theatre. It’s a project that N.C. Stage has wanted to do for years, notes producing director Angie Flynn-McIver. But with a cast of 16, it made sense to perform the play at ACT’s larger facility. “We couldn’t even fit that many people in our dressing room,” Flynn-McIver jokes. “This is a great opportunity for us to do something that wouldn’t fit in our space. … We’re always looking for community partnerships. The great thing about this is it’s such a natural fit. All of the pieces have been falling into place.”
The play, written by Peter Shaffer and first staged in 1979, was inspired by Alexander Pushkin’s 1830 play Mozart and Salieri. Shaffer’s version won a Tony in ’81; his screen adaptation won an Oscar in ’84. Flynn-McIver says the local production (starring Michael MacCauley as the composer Antonio Salieri and Allen T. Law in the title role) is based on the ’99 revival. And, thanks to costume designer Susan Brown-Strauss and wig designer George Martinat, “You’re really going to see the opulence of that time,” promises Flynn-McIver. “The big thing that both of them are working on is having the shape and the forms of [the late 18th century], then taking some liberties with the fabrics to go along with our concept.”
While Salieri — who, in Shaffer’s fictionalization, imagines himself to be in a rivalry with Mozart — is the main character of Amadeus, it’s the title artist who clearly steals the show. “He kind of is everything to everybody,” says Ax. “You can go and hear a piece of Mozart having never heard [his] music before and really, really enjoy it. On the other hand, you can go and hear a concert having heard thousands of those and be just as excited as you were the first time — maybe more so.“History is a very harsh judge,” the pianist adds. For an artist’s impact to last, that person’s contribution must resonate meaningfully with an audience, he says.
Although Ax, who was born in Poland and raised in Canada before studying at The Juilliard School, is well-versed in the classical tradition, he also champions contemporary composers. “I think all of the performers today try to play music by people who are still alive,” he says. “It would be incredibly wonderful to have been part of starting off a piece that will maybe stay around. Wouldn’t it have been marvelous to be the first pianist to play a Mozart concerto?”
At press time, Ax’s intimate Diana Wortham Theatre recital (Friday, March 20) was sold out, but he’ll also perform with the orchestra at the Asheville Amadeus Finale Concert on Sunday, March 22. For that event, the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium stage will be extended 30 feet into the concert hall, with stadium-style seating installed behind the performers. “We’re doing this to leverage future opportunity,” says Whitehill. “We think, as you’re doing a festival, you try to create really unique experiences.”
Naturally, the program includes Mozart (Piano Concerto No. 14 and Concerto for Two Pianos), but also selections from Salieri and Schubert. And if the festival becomes a biennial event, future editions might feature different composers (Bela Bartok, for example, spent time in Asheville) and even plugged-in concerts. For now, however, Mozart is a fine starting point. “People have either seen the movie or they’ve been in an elevator and heard Mozart,” says Whitehill. “It’s in popular culture. There are Mozart chocolates.”
“Mozart,” he adds, “is just the entry point to get us all to play together.”